Happy Father’s Day! Last month, I shared some of the most important things I learned from my mother’s example. My father has also been incredibly influential, and for today’s post I decided to focus on one of the most significant years of my childhood, when my father prepared me for adulthood in ways I could never have expected, and showed how the most ordinary things can teach the best lessons.
A Tale of Two Objectives
When my parents bought their house, the only thing they didn’t love was that the basement wasn’t finished, so they decided that they would correct that as soon as possible. It ended up taking them close to twelve years to save enough money, because hey-kids are expensive, and their first priority was always, always “our girls” (it still is). When I was nine, they were finally ready to call in the contractors. At the same time, however, their girls were old enough to desperately want a “real” family vacation (specifically, we wanted to go to Disney World). And they wanted to take us.
Mom and Dad decided that the basement could wait a little longer, because they knew that there would only be so many years for family vacations. However, Dad wasn’t convinced that they couldn’t have both. He already had some pretty solid carpentry skills, he had a good friend who was an electrician, and there were lots of books out there about plumbing and other topics. Worst case scenario, he thought, we would take the trip the next year, no matter what, and the basement might be a multi-year project. His goal, though, was to reach both objectives within a year, and he made it. Within twelve months, the basement had been transformed from a giant concrete room to a family room, laundry room, sewing room, workshop, home office, and second bathroom.
And then we went to Disney World.
Dad taught us a lot of important things that year, including:
Learn how to do things.
In my mental montage of my Dad, several images always recur:
- Dad sitting at the kitchen table with a notebook and a manual, teaching himself how to install a sink or lay carpet.
- Dad in the basement, consulting his notes and hand drawn plans while he cuts drywall and paneling.
- Dad back at the kitchen table, with a road atlas and another notebook, mapping out our drive to Florida, estimating gas costs, calling motels, and so on.
- And most importantly, Dad teaching all of us as much as he could about what he was doing. We all spent time in the basement working with him, and it was the start of a lifelong pattern of Dad showing us new skills at every opportunity.
One of Dad’s favorite expressions when we were growing up was, “My girls are going to know how to…” and there were lots of ways he finished this sentence. We all know how to build a bookshelf, fix a leak, paint a room, and hang a door. We also know how to change a tire and change our oil. And all of that’s just for starters.
Do we always do all of those things for ourselves? No. We have our own answers to the time versus money question, and that doesn’t bother Dad. He never tells us that we’re wasting money when we pay for something that we could do on our own. What’s important to Dad, and to us, is that we can do it, if we choose to.
But even that isn’t the most critical takeaway. What Dad really taught us is that we can learn. Even in the days before the internet, if you wanted to learn a new skill, the information was available if you went looking for it. Dad’s example turned us into people who do just that. A few weeks ago, my sister Audrey’s husband mentioned that our family motto should be: “We can definitely figure that out”. It fits.
Make a plan.
Dad didn’t just involve us in the remodeling; he also made us a part of budgeting and planning for the basement and the vacation. We were all invested in both projects, as Dad’s vision for the basement was contagious, and Disney World was, well, Disney World. Over the course of the year, he taught us to think logically about a long term project, break it into steps, anticipate problems, and change direction if needed. When I was in grad school, studying organizational leadership, I was amazed at how many of the principles I was learning reminded me of Dad’s lessons during our “team meetings” (and yes, he did call them that).
Maybe the most important skill we developed was resource management and making tough decisions. Dad was completely transparent with the budget for both objectives, and when a decision had to be made, he discussed it with all of us, in ways we could understand. A nicer hotel would mean less expensive restaurants, so which was more important? Did we want to go to Sea World, or did we want more souvenir money? Did we immediately want to buy new furniture for our new basement, or wait six months to a year so we could spend more money on our trip?
Not only did that get us all voluntarily practicing our math skills (well played, Dad), but we were soon evaluating the importance of every way the family was spending money. Could movie night still be fun without pizza? What if sometimes we stayed home and played Monopoly instead of going out and playing miniature golf? How much would we save if we only had donuts every other Sunday instead of every Sunday?
That’s right, people-I voluntarily gave up donuts.
We learned to budget, to save, to delay gratification, to think long term, and to think qualitatively. In the long run, our experiences that year would help us choose colleges, jobs, homes, and much, much more. It’s the reason I was able to afford going back to school, taking the trip of a lifetime, and completely redoing the landscaping at my house. (That last one was also helped immensely by the fact that Mom, Dad, and I did 99% of the work ourselves. See the first lesson.)
Solve the problem, then tell the story.
If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I’m much more likely to share my mistakes and ridiculousness than try to hide them. That’s completely because of my Dad. Even when he swears he’s going to keep an embarrassing moment to himself, he’ll be telling everyone about it within a day. The only thing he likes more than stories that make him look silly are stories that make us look good. I don’t want to give you the impression that finishing the basement went off without a hitch. Despite his extensive research, there were a lot of things he was doing for the first time, and mistakes were bound to happen. The most significant was when he flooded half the basement while working on the new bathroom. I can’t remember exactly why it happened, but I definitely remember the mess. Mom wasn’t home at the time, and we actually managed to clean everything up before she got back. Dad, of course, said that there was no reason to tell her about it…and then, of course, treated her to a hilarious account of the incident as soon as she got home. He showed us not to take ourselves too seriously, and that a good laugh is more than worth a little embarrassment.
Dad has also always been open about serious mistakes and things he isn’t proud of, and because of that, we’ve rarely had trouble telling him when we really screw up. We know that he understands, and that his focus will be on solutions, not judgments. Because of him, I’ve learned to be open with friends, family, and coworkers to try and create the same level of trust and comfort.
We finished the basement a few weeks before the big trip, and all of our hard work was about to pay off. However, life was about to throw us a curve. On day one of our two day drive, we were in a car accident. Luckily, no one was hurt, but the station wagon wasn’t going anywhere soon. I remember huddling in a Denny’s in a strange town five hours from home, trying not to cry while I waited for Dad to come back from the mechanic’s and tell us the vacation was over. I knew that we’d have another chance, and was determined to “be a big girl” and go back to the savings plan to get ready for next year.
Instead, Dad pulled up in a rental car and announced, “Sometimes you just have to use the credit card. Let’s go to Florida.” Then he kissed Mom and the cheek and added, “Is this going to be a great story or what?” I can’t imagine how stressed he must have been about the additional expense, but he focused on the experience, the story, and what was really important.
Our basement family room is still a place where we gather, and the framed picture of all of us in Mickey Mouse ears reminds us of everything we learned from Dad.
What were some of the most important lessons you learned as a child?